While listening to Ameer Abu Ria say, in reference to Israel, that it gives him a “good feeling to be part of this country,” I couldn’t help but wonder if he and I were thinking about the same place.
As an Arab-American (and human being) I have complex feelings about the state of Israel. Specifically, about its treatment of its Arab citizens. As I watched this film I saw a portrait of a well-intentioned but ultimately naïve young man trying to take an active role in a country that views him as a secondary citizen.
“Ameer Got His Gun,” is a documentary by Israeli director Naomi Levari. In the film, Levari follows 18-year old Ameer through his difficult journey of enlisting in the IDF. Ameer is from Sakhnin, a mostly Muslim town in Israel’s North District.
Following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, Ameer, who is otherwise exempt from serving, decides to volunteer as a border policeman. He does this despite the warnings of his uncle who, after serving, admits to spending the rest of his life trying to win back the respect of his family and friends.
During one scene, Ameer goes to his high school to pick up his transcript (written entirely in Hebrew) where many wish him luck, and offer reluctant consolations in the form of something like, “it will be an experience.” That’s one way of putting it.
The film goes on to show Ameer and his Israeli compatriots getting along, while constantly referring to each other as “cousin” (it’s a Middle Eastern thing, we’re always calling each other family). Stationed at a border checkpoint in Hebron, Ameer stays quiet as his Israeli “friends” make comments about wanting to exterminate all Arabs—except, they assure him, for Ameer and his family. Ameer laughs at this, but I did not see the humor in such hateful, odious speech.
Ameer’s naiveté about the Israeli-Palestinian relationship had me shaking my head. Much to his own detriment, Ameer dwells on the similarities between him and his fellow Israeli soldiers. “They all talk like me,” he says excitedly at one point. “And they remembered my name,” he says with an almost reverent gratitude. It is this depiction of Ameer, and of all Arabs, as victims yearning to be accepted that most troubles me. While I do enjoy a good underdog story, when it comes to Palestinians, I am sick of it, and would like to see someone challenge this narrative.
Even though only roughly 20 Muslim Arabs volunteer to serve every year, more may be on the way. Gideon Sa’ar, Israel’s Education Minister, just announced a plan that will reward schools based on the percentage of the students who perform “military or civilian national service.” If the plan passes, there will be many more like Ameer, who will struggle to maintain their Arab identities while embracing their Israeli selves.
The screening, which was part of a series hosted by the Other Israel Film Festival, held a Q&A afterward. The audience asked Levori and Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy some of the questions that had also been bugging me during film.
“Do you think that Ameer’s story might change some Israeli minds?” one hopeful-sounding middle-aged man asked. Levari and Levy both agreed that it wouldn’t.
“Ameer didn’t change anyone’s mind,” Levari responded matter-of-factly. “I just hope that when people watch the film, they will change.”
Another audience member asked whether Levari thought Ameer would regret his decision, as his uncle had.
“He already does,” she answered.
This came as no surprise to Levy, who, when asked about his hope for the future of the Israel-Palestine conflict, responded, “My hope was taken from me long ago.”
Despite Levy’s skepticism, some in the crowd were inspired by Ameer’s story. Levy himself lauded the festival, noting that he was “deeply moved” by the fact that every seat in the theater, even during the post-screening, was filled. “I’m not sure this film would get an audience in Tel Aviv,” he said.
What that says about New Yorkers is one thing. But what it says about Israelis is another—and that, I think, is something far more troubling.